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Lessons I've Learned from Standardized Tests
This article, by Sally Hunt, was originally published in the May-June 1996 issue of Home Education Magazine.


Spring testing.
Just the very words send a chill through me. The sweetness of May and its new flowers and fresh breezes will again be a bit soured by The Test. It is the yearly hurdle we must jump over in our state to get official approval to homeschool. I dread those days of testing, even though I've learned a lot from them.
I am not a fan of standardized testing. I don't think it is a very good measure of a child's abilities and skills, and my educational philosophy is far removed from those who create such tests. I am reminded of David Colfax's comment a few years ago here in town that "meeting someone else's requirements is not education." Amen to that!
Yet, ironically, the standardized tests my sons take each year, as required by state law, have aided my leanings toward unschooling even as my unease with taking them has increased. I have tried to turn these mandatory intrusions into our homeschooling life into a tool rather than a measurement of success. In short, I have learned a lot from this testing game--things the educational authorities that sanction such tests probably never intended.
Let me make it clear that although I've learned from the tests , I am not praising mandatory testing. I think it should be optional, and test results should be kept with the parent(s) and not submitted to school authorities. Yet when I read through the list of requirements for different states, some of those lists seem overwhelming to me and a lot more intrusive than a test. I don't like anyone sticking their nose into my family's life, but a test once a year is to me a lot less of an interruption and intrusion than keeping attendance (huh?) or making up an individual education plan for each child. Yuk! How do you put "whatever catches our fancy" into educational-ese that will pass muster with a "professional educator?" Yes, yes, I'd like to live in a state where I don't have to answer to authorities for my children's education with a test and part of me regrets having ever registered and thus starting the testing game. But now I know first hand what testing is like and some ways to curtail its influence.
To help ease pressure to "teach to the test," our sons are tested a year behind what their grade level would normally be in school. Because both our boys have June birthdays, Cameron's first required test was taken right before he turned seven. He was not reading beyond the cat-sat-mat level, and the first grade test required quite a bit of reading, which would have quickly overwhelmed him. We decided to give him the kindergarten test, which required no reading. Although it is an option to skip him ahead a test, we have kept him and his brother on this "year behind" test schedule. This makes the tests easier and less intimidating for them.
We also use a certified tester for the past three years who is also a homeschooling mom. Our boys are tested in her home, with lots of breaks, in a small group. I would never subject them to the large group testing down at our local education service district where, incidentally, the testing fees are nearly double that of our tester.
I buy a practice test each year, something I doubt I'd do if testing wasn't required. This year as I look over the test, I am finding more areas where I will have to explain certain things: pronouns, suffixes, division symbols, cubic measurements, etc. Once explained to them, my children easily catch onto these things, but I'd rather this ability was prompted by their own curiosity rather than "this will be on the# test." Yes, I could just have them take the test without any explanations, and their scores would most likely be high enough to meet the state requirements, but then I'm afraid they'd feel stupid and inadequate--feelings that could linger beyond the length of the test. So we grudgingly take a week to look over the hoops they have to jump through during the test. In our state, we have a pretty narrow choice when it comes to homeschooling: Comply with the law and test your child every year, or go underground. So far, we've complied and taken the test.
One thing I've learned is that testing shuts people up. There are always going to be people, whether casual acquaintances or family members, who don't understand your homeschooling way of life and how learning takes place within it. These naysayers are usually quieted by references to testing. This they understand. Even if your child scores below average on a test, you can say, with all sincerity, "She took a test and is doing fine. She is not falling behind her peers." With some people you can expound on how you see your children learning in ways tests can't ever cover and assess, but for those who are wondering "Does homeschool work?" in context of the traditional schooling system, a test score is reassuring. Don't we all like to quote statistics that homeschoolers do exceedingly well on standardized tests? The flip side of this is that schools are abandoning standardized testing as an accurate measurement of a student's academic abilities. Too bad many homeschoolers aren't given the same opportunity.
Testing can reassure parents, too. I have read millions of words about homeschooling, unschooling, child-led academics, and so on and have seen my children blossom, thrive and learn in a unstructured setting. But this does not mean I never have any fleeting doubts about whether this path we've chosen is serving them well academically. The tests have helped me see my children are not becoming dullards and dunces without formal schooling. I do not need to stuff them with knowledge in order to get the state nod of approval. (Although to be honest, a quick read of the practice test could teach me the same thing. Actually taking the test isn't necessary.) We putter along, following our own interests most of the year with little thought to spring testing. I keep a journal for myself on what things they are learning, partly to reassure myself during those times when all they seem to be doing is not much of anything -- at least educationally. Looking over the practice tests, seeing what is actually expected of children at certain ages and comparing it to the things my children are doing is very reassuring, although often their individual achievements are not easily correlated to specific parts of the test. I also realize that many of their moments of insight will never be reflected on a test, and the tests are impossibly, well, standardized. While we were watching the Civil War PBS video series recently, the narrator mentioned that in most battles casualties were often 30 percent. "Whoa," I commented, "That means for every ten soldiers, three died." "Yeah, and if you had 30 soldiers, nine died--that's only one less than one-third," commented Nathan, 8. This was from a boy who has enjoyed math freedom after we tossed our workbooks early in October. His observation was certainly mathematical, and just as certainly won't be on any standardized test.
I've also learned that testing shows how little testing matters. The most important "lessons" I want my children to learn can't be measured by standardized tests. Curiosity, kindness, compassion, service, a zest for learning throughout life, imagination, individualism -- these things to me are far more important than how fast they can add, whether they know what a pronoun is and which picture shows 1/3 of a pie. A standardized test shows how puny a view of education we have as a society. Testing has taught me how unimportant tests are to our way of life and learning. Each year we chuckle at some of the questions on the tests and their narrow definition of "right" answers. This in turn leads into a lively discussion about educational philosophy and standardized tests.
The most important lesson I've learned is that testing is an insidious intrusion, no matter how you slice it. Despite my brave words above, I have come to realize, after just three years of test taking, just the very act of Cameron and Nathaniel taking the test is strong temptation to be sucked into its swaggering sense of importance. Last year, out of "curiosity," I pulled previous test results out, compared them to the fresh scores, point by point. I felt a flutter of panic that math scores had dipped slightly from the year before, and began wondering what math program will help pull them back up. This led to the purchase of Saxon Math Three with its two monstrous books of worksheets, which we dumped early in the fall. "Acck," I said to myself, "What happened to all that talk about how little scores matter?" The very thing I resolved not to do, I was doing. It is extremely hard not to brag about high scores, even citing the grade equivalent. It can sound impressive that your late-to-read child nonetheless scored at -- oops! I was about to do it again! I admire my friend who simply says, "They did fine" and leave it at that. Comparing your children to others even through a simple standardized test robs them of their individualism and presents your unique, interesting child as a number on a graph. And sadly, as parents who often grew up with such testing, it is too easy to measure the "success" of homeschooling by those numbers.
"I wonder how many parents would be more relaxed about homeschooling if it wasn't for the test," mused a homeschooling friend of mine in a recent discussion. She noted that many parents feel pressure to have their children do well on the test and thus push concepts that may not be quite in their children's intellectual grasp, whereas if a parent waits until the child is ready--often learning those things on their own--it is much less of a struggle. This is all too true. Sadly, testing pushes people to push their kids academically.
So this May, when I receive those test scores, I'll remind myself that Cameron and Nathaniel are children, not percentile points on a testing sheet. They are happy (most of the time), articulate (usually), lively (always) and curious (never ending). They are learning about their world in their own unique ways and time. And they're doing just fine, thank you.

- Copyright 1996 Sally Hunt

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